Britain's greatest civilian disaster of WW2 unfolded on 3rd March 1943 in Bethnal Green. No bombs exploded, but 173 people lost their lives in a crush on a staircase after a single person tripped and fell. Today, almost 75 years later, an extraordinary memorial to their deaths is being inaugurated in the corner of Bethnal Green Gardens. The Stairway To Heaven has been a long time coming.
The original incident took place on a damp evening following the firing of new anti-aircraft guns in Victoria Park. Thinking they were under attack from enemy action, hundreds of people surged towards Bethnal Green tube station to seek shelter on the platforms below. The southeastern stairwell was lit by a single 25 watt bulb, thanks to the blackout, and lacked handrails because the government had told the council they weren't needed. The stairs were also slippery from the rain, so when a middle-aged woman carrying a baby tripped and fell, a lethal domino effect came into play.
People continued to press down into the stairwell, unable to see what was happening below, and within 15 seconds hundreds were struggling for air. Most of the casualties occurred on the landing where the staircase turns, just 19 steps down from the safety of the street. The first policeman on the scene estimated that over 200 bodies had been compressed into a space the size of a small room. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children never made it out alive.
A junior A&E doctor at the local children's hospital remembered how "one dead person after another arrived on stretchers, their faces wet and pale mauve in colour." Dr Martin is now 102 years old, and she'll be the oldest person present at this morning's ceremony. Also in attendance will be the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the local MP, several Pearly Kings and Queens, and notable East End celebrities with a longstanding connection to the memorial campaign.
For many years the sole physical recognition of the disaster was a small plaque at the foot of the stairs, and even that took some time to appear. This much larger memorial has been on the cards for almost ten years, thanks to the actions of the Stairway to Heaven Trust, and the determination of a Kent woman whose mother survived the tragedy.
It took a considerable amount of imagination to conceive a memorial which is essentially a cast of the staircase, inverted and suspended in midair. It also took a considerable amount of money, over £400,000 all told, which is why the final structure has emerged in two parts. First to appear was the Portland stone plinth, almost five years ago, since when it's been sticking up above the road junction like a peculiar snaking spike. Plaques on the upright name all the victims and their ages, from Betty Aarons (14) to John Yewman (13 months).
The final part, the actual staircase, was winched into position last month. It's made of teak and has been beautifully carved with the surname of every victim around three of the sides. Inside it's hollow, and on the top surface 173 conical holes have been drilled to allow light to pass through. During the day they look like tiny points of sky but after dark, with all the streetlamps blazing, it's easy to believe each is a star shining down. The Stairway To Heaven memorial thus achieves its aim, and is well named.
Around the base of the memorial is a small garden, planted with daffodil bulbs to bring colour each year on the anniversary of the tragedy. There's also a small bench, for contemplative purposes, and information boards to explain the significance of what happened here. At present, however, the whole area is boarded over and barriered off, to ensure that this morning's unveiling can take place without creating a mudbath. Ceremonies begin at 11.15am, should you be interested in attending.
But the memorial is already turning heads. I passed by yesterday, and was struck by quite how many people stopped and stared, or at least deliberately looked, trying to hard comprehend why on earth an upturned staircase might be suspended here. Hopefully the publicity surrounding its official unveiling will help explain, or else more people will pop into the park to read about its history once the area is opened up.
What always chills me, though, is passing the memorial and then heading down the stairs into the ticket hall. The treads and handrails may be new, but the landing at the foot of the steps is still the same size, and in only a few seconds you pass through a tiny space where almost 200 people lost their lives. One slip was all it took to turn an ordinary passageway into a tomb, and a place of refuge into a suffocating hellhole. As more recent events at Grenfell Tower also remind us, skimping on health and safety can have catastrophic consequences we must never forget.